‘This is a comma, not a period’: Camden residents hold onto hope as superintendent announces school closures

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On Jan. 25, demonstrators protest school closures in front of Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, slated to be shuttered by Camden City School Superintendent Katrina McCombs. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

At Tuesday’s school district advisory board meeting, Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs announced a plan to close four neighborhood schools, despite pleas from children who advocated for the opposite.

Superintendent McCombs’ decision to shutter the schools, in the face of what she described as a $40 million shortfall for the 2021-22 school year, was not surprising.

Last year, McCombs formed a long-term planning committee to confer on potential closings, and held two forums for community input.

What kept changing were the targeted schools, and opponents of the closures were hard-pressed to keep up. Of the four announced last night — Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, U.S. Wiggins College Preparatory Lab Family School, Yorkship Elementary School, and Cramer Elementary School — only Sharp and Wiggins had been discussed in depth. Sean Brown, who served on the planning committee, did not remember Cramer ever being mentioned as a possibility for closure during its meetings.

Maria Montero, left, leads a protest against school closures at Wiggins School
On Jan. 25, Maria Montero, left, leads a protest against school closures at Wiggins School, slated to be shuttered by Camden City School Superintendent Katrina McCombs. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

In addition to announcing the closures, which Camden Education Association President Keith Benson estimated would affect up to 1,500 students, McCombs said the Cooper’s Poynt Family School and Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy buildings would be repurposed as middle schools.

At the virtual school board meeting, which attracted nearly 500 viewers to its Facebook broadcast, McCombs spoke of the painfulness of her decision. She showed pictures of what she has described as “deplorable” conditions at the four schools, three of which are more than a century old, and said that “on average, these schools are 30% empty,” making their continued operation unsustainable.

She did not mention the layoffs of 150 teachers and staffers expected to result from the closures, although that number was provided by a spokesperson for the district.

CEA president Keith Benson Jr. holds up a sign torn by the wind after he walked from Wiggins School
At a Jan. 6 protest, CEA president Keith Benson Jr. holds up a sign torn by the wind after he walked from Wiggins School, slated for possible closure, to Forest Hill, the closest public school, in order to show how much further families would have to travel to keep their children in public school. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

In a city where the 2012 Urban Hope Act — legislation that activists say represented the agenda of then-Gov. Chris Christie and South Jersey power broker George Norcross — led to the shuttering of traditional public schools amid a proliferation of charter and Renaissance ones, the proposed closing of four at once shocked many residents.

It also represented a betrayal for Benson, who said he and McCombs had collaborated on a plan to grow the traditional public schools with the approval of former New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, who is credited with helping to save Veterans Memorial Family School when McCombs wanted to close it in 2018. Benson said the plan was abandoned by McCombs as soon as Repollet left his position last year. It didn’t call for closures like these, Benson said, because four buildings currently being used as schools will be vacated this September when their populations moved to the new Camden High School campus.

Benson hopes to appeal to current New Jersey Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan to stop the closures. “I don’t want educators and students to feel like all hope is lost because they saw this today,” he said after the meeting. “This is a comma, not a period, because the commissioner has to sign off on it.”

He also doesn’t agree with McCombs’ dire financial assessment. “The district this year is asking for $30 million more than the previous year,” Benson said, “and she’s projecting a $40 million deficit, so that created an argument for being short. But what was the $30 million even for? Have you seen anything new popping up in Camden City public schools?”

Camden’s schools have been closed for in-person learning since March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which McCombs and Benson both said has saved the Camden City School District several million dollars.

Over half the students in Camden now attend charter and Renaissance schools, and public school advocates believe those schools will reap the benefits of the closures by absorbing the displaced students. As recently as 2018, Cramer School received $3.8 million in upgrades, including the replacement of 360 windows and other repairs. Benson believes it suddenly appeared on the closure list “because it’s surrounded by Renaissance schools.” I’ve been in Cramer, and it’s far from a deplorable building,” Benson said.

Activist Eulisis Delgado, left, protests school closures with children and their parents in front of Harry C. Sharp Elementary School
On Jan. 25, activist Eulisis Delgado, left, protests school closures with children and their parents in front of Harry C. Sharp Elementary School, slated to be shuttered by Camden City School Superintendent Katrina McCombs. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

One issue that had upset parents — many of whom have no cars — was the distance they would have to travel to bring their children to the next nearest traditional public school. At the meeting, McCombs promised busing for all children impacted by the closures, even for distances of less than two miles.

“What does that do to the transportation budget?” asked Benson. “You’re running more buses and losing more students and somehow, miraculously, we wind up better financially?”

School board members had mixed reactions to the superintendent’s decision, which they were unable to vote on because the district has been controlled by the state since 2013. Board President Wasim Muhammad, who chastised Benson for wanting “to force children to attend 100-year-old schools that are not in good condition,” said that “pain can sometimes be a blessing.”

Vice President N’namdee Nelson questioned McCombs’ downward projection of enrollment and asked for a breakdown of repairs for each school. And Elton Custis, a board member, said, “I do not believe forcing our students out of our neighborhood schools gives them an advantage at all.”

Public comment was limited to 30 speakers; among them were parents, activists, and teachers, some of whom pointed out that they had been working at the endangered schools for over 900 days without a contract.

Carla Moreira spoke of Sharp School’s success with children with special needs like her son, who had been denied an individualized learning plan by a charter school. “My son came into Sharp almost nonverbal,” she said. “Now he talks so much he can hardly stop!”

Taina Alicea, 17, protests from a car in front of Harry C. Sharp Elementary Schoo
On Jan. 25, Taina Alicea, 17, protests from a car in front of Harry Sharp Elementary School, slated to be shuttered by Camden City School Superintendent Katrina McCombs. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Dr. Linda Brown-Bartlett, who teaches at Yorkship, told the board: “Mostly, I heard you talk about buildings and money, but I didn’t truly hear about students and our families. They’re the ones that are going to be heartbroken.”

She cited a statistic that students who are displaced lose 60% of their academic year.

“As of March 17, it’ll be a year that our students haven’t been in our buildings,” she said. “Is this really the time to be disrupting and displacing students and staff?”

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